Captivology: A book review by Bob Morris

CaptivologyCaptivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention
Ben Parr
Harper One/An Imprint of HarperCollins (March 2015)

How and why captivation “triggers” affect our attention and awareness every day, often without our being aware of it

There really is a science that reveals how to capture another person’s attention. In 2001, Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck published The Attention Economy. Theirs is a fascinating subject: ADD in the business world. Almost everyone continues to experience information overload and it’s far worse now than it was 14 years ago. Some who have studied this phenomenon invoke metaphors such as a “blizzard” or “tsunami” of data. Each day, information providers find it increasingly more difficult to reach those who are most important to them. How to attract their attention? Then, how to retain that attention with what has been described as “stickiness” by the brothers Heath? After conducting an extensive research project, Davenport and Beck conclude that attention is “the new currency of business.” Perhaps Michael Wolf agrees, having published a brilliant book about “the entertainment economy” in 1999; perhaps B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore agree, having published (also in 1999) a book about “the experience economy.”

Ben Parr shares his own thoughts about this science in Captivology whose somewhat hokey title suggests that capturing attention is far more important than merely attracting it, especially these days when the human attention span resembles a strobe light blink. Of course, as is usually the situation, there’s both good news and bad news: getting someone’s attention is good only if (HUGE if) they appreciate it rather than resent it. There are no second chances if curiosity is corrupted by deceit.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Parr’s coverage in the first five chapters:

o The Three Stages of Attention (Pages 13-23)
o The Automaticity Trigger (28-32)
o Why Did a Symbol Make Us Care About Heartbleed? (43-46)
o Why Can We Hear Our Names in a Crowded Room? (49-52)
o Moving Beyond Immediate Attention (55-56)
o The Framing Trigger (59-62)
o The Inertia of Ideas (62-65)
o How Do Politicians Set the Agenda? (71-75)
o The Final Word on Frames of Reference (81-82)
o The Disruption Trigger (84-87)
o Statistics + Finger Paints = A Surprising Lesson (88-92)
o Keeping Things Significant (97-99)
o Simplicity, Surprise, and Significance in Context (102-103)
o The Reward Mechanism (106-110)
o How to Deliver Extrinsic Rewards (113-116)
o How to Deliver Intrinsic Rewards (121-122)
o How to Get People to Walk Through Your Doors (126-128)
o Balancing Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards (129-131)

Parr provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel based on more than 500 scientific studies of attention within the disciplines of psychology and neurology. He also conducted about 50 interviews of various thought leaders and drew upon relevant case studies. This is indeed an evidence-driven rather than theory-driven book.

I was especially interested in his discussion of what he characterizes as seven “captivation triggers”; that is, psychological and scientific phenomena that evoke responses in the mind. They are:

1. Automaticity: Initiate appealing sensory stimulation
2. Framing: Relocate expectations to a different context
3. Disruption: Eliminate expectations to create cognitive “room” for something else
4. Reward: Leverage (exploiting) people’s reward preferences
5. Reputation: Obtain trust with credentials, track record, and reputation
6. Mystery: Use mystery, uncertainty, and ambiguity to create intrigue that sustains interest
7. Acknowledgement: Use humility to gain credibility with self-deprecating deference

Readers will appreciate Parr’s inclusion of dozens of stories that anchor his insights within a real-world context and frame of reference. In fact, as master manipulators such as Steve Jobs demonstrate, audiences love to be entertained but also delighted by surprise. Consider this example of an effective “plot twist” as a mystery trigger:

“At the end of Apple’s big presentations and project launches, when it seemed like Jobs had finished his presentation, he would come back with three little words: ‘One more thing…’ When he said those words, the crowd would go wild and Jobs would unveil one more surprise product.”

The plot twist without a spoiler is only one of dozens of means by which to capture and then maintain control of attention, be it one person or a several thousand. My own take is that the credibility of those who are masters of that process is essential to their effectiveness. Self-serving tricks and gimmicks are self-defeating. More to the point, they betray the trust that people invest with their attention. By all means use various triggers to attract attention to what you offer but make certain that what you offer is worthy of attention. Ben Parr brilliantly explains “why some ideas and ideologies are so compelling and why other ideas don’t capture your attention, even if you know they should.” Attention resembles trust in that both must be earned and can so quickly be lost. Yes, Steve Jobs was a master of all seven triggers but he only used them in good faith. So must anyone else and that, for me, is the most important point for aspiring captivologists to keep in mind.

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